Dylan Roof’s death sentence for the South Carolina shooting which left nine people dead, departs from the national downward trending of death penalty cases.
Before the June 17, 2015 mass shooting, Roof’s only contact with police had been two arrests each occurring in the months immediately before the deadly attack. Following a February 28 incident at a Columbia mall, Roof was questioned by law enforcement and arrested on a misdemeanor charge of drug possession and banned from the mall for twelve-months. Roof was captured and held with no bail up until trial.
From the mid-1990s when death penalty cases stood at over 300 a year, the number of new death penalty cases has dropped to 30 in 2016 according to the Death Penalty Information Center. The previous low was a 40-year low of 40 in 2015.
Executions have dropped from almost 100 in 1999 to twenty in 2016 according to DPIC. Better defense teams, publicity of wrongful-conviction cases and changing public opinions of capital punishment have all led to the decline according to Robert Dunham, Executive Director of DPIC.
“We’re in the middle of a climate change on the death penalty,” Dunham said. “The long-term trend shows a reduced utilization of the death penalty.”
Roof, who fired a .45 caliber handgun told jurors “I felt like I had to do it. I still feel that way.”
The jury recommended the death penalty after three hours of deliberation.
In some ways, Roof’s case is an anomaly. He decided to defend himself, didn’t show any remorse and talking about killing again.
“Someone representing themselves is not going to be able to put on that type of case,” said Brandon Garrett, a professor with the University of Virginia Law School.
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The drop in death penalty cases can be linked to improvements in capital defense teams nationally. Also, there are fewer cities and counties pushing the death penalty for budgetary reasons.
Texas, with 538 executions since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976, is seeing a decline as well. Death sentences have fallen from a zenith of 48 in 1999 to three in 2015 and three in 2016, said Kristin Houle, director of the Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty.
In a 2016 Gallup Poll, a majority of people across America — 60-percent — favor the death penalty. That figure is down from 80-percent who supported the punishment in 1994.
Garrett feels the shift from death sentences may be irreversible. “The trends are long-standing and ingrained,” he said. “I see them continuing.”